Excerpt

Chapter One

WHO WOULD be slaughtered next?

Riley studied his prey, his eyes narrowed and focused on his first potential victim before he moved his gaze on to the next one. He had to choose. Or did he? He curled his lips into a wicked grin. Who said he couldn’t have both?

“Sorry, fellas. Looks like you’re out of luck.”

Riley stuffed the remaining slice of lemon cake into his mouth, moaning in delight as the frosting melted on his tongue. God, these were so freaking good. He washed it down with the frothy cappuccino he’d made himself while cashing out the register. Once the lemon cake was no more, he moved on to the old-fashioned glazed donut. He could never choose between the two.

The café’s front doors opened and Riley swallowed the remainder of his donut. He took a quick sip of coffee before addressing the two men in dark jackets and jeans.

“Hey, guys. I’m real sorry but we’re closed.” Hadn’t he locked the door? He was pretty sure he’d locked the door. Maybe he should’ve been paying more attention to his closing duties and less to stuffing his face. It wasn’t like his manager, Clara, minded if he took the leftovers home. Getting rid of the remaining stock at the end of the day was one of his many responsibilities at Tiger Tails Café. If he had to eat a few tasty cakes in order to perform his duty, well, that was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

The men came toward the counter and Riley straightened. Maybe they were tourists and didn’t understand English very well. Riley motioned politely to the door.

“I’m sorry, we’re closed. Tomorrow. We open tomorrow.”

“Are you Riley Murrough?”

So much for not understanding him. Riley eyed them warily. “Um, yeah. Can I help you guys with something?” His gut twisted and he casually removed his orange-and-black apron. The taller of the two smiled, his lips spreading and curling freakishly far up the sides of his face before they opened wide, releasing a horrific, gurgling shriek.

“Holy fuck!” Riley reeled. What the hell? The glass display case shattered, followed by the shop’s windows and doors. The shriek intensified, forcing Riley to cover his ears, the noise piercing his skull. A black tar-like goo leaked from the men’s eyes and ears, their faces elongating and contorting, their skin growing veiny and ashen. Riley had no idea what he was seeing, but he wasn’t sticking around to find out. He’d watched enough horror movies in his lifetime to know not hauling ass when freaky stuff happened got you dead.

He tossed the apron at their faces and bolted into the back end of the café, forgetting about the trash bags he was supposed to have taken out half an hour ago. He tripped over a bag and hit the linoleum tiles hard. Oh my God, he was that guy. Behind him the men—or whatever the hell they were—appeared, their eyes nothing but hollow sockets.

The putrid smell of decay and filth made Riley gag, and he scrambled to his feet, covering his mouth to keep himself from throwing up. The smell made his eyes water and he tried his best to breathe through his mouth as he threw open the side door. The alley was plunged into near darkness. The lights were working just fine last night when he closed. What the hell was going on?

Riley’s attempt to make it to the street was quickly thwarted by the appearance of another shadowy figure. Maybe it was a regular guy and not some decomposing monster. Riley considered asking the man for help when hebegan oozing the same black tar-like substance as the others. Nope. Riley spun on his heels and bolted down the alley, hoping to make it to the other side of the street. He was halfway there when he made the mistake of looking up.

“Oh Jesus.” He came skidding to a halt, his heart leaping into his throat as terrifying creatures that resembled corpses in various stages of putrefaction scurried down the sides of the brick buildings like roaches. What the hell where they? Besides disgusting.

They came out from the shadows, from trash cans, and from the very ground itself, shrieking and hissing, fangs dripping with tar, eye sockets empty voids, and long mouths emitting a rancid stench. Riley turned but they were closing in on him from every direction.

This couldn’t be happening.

Riley snatched up a discarded trash can lid, and held it out in front of him. It seemed like an absurd move, but there was nothing normal about this whole situation. Where were all the people? At this time of night, there was plenty of foot traffic, people heading home from work, or on their way to dinner. Riley hadn’t seen one person walk by. He was on his own.

Slowly he backed away from the closest mass of screeching creatures and swung the lid in front of him in hopes of staying out of their reach a little longer. By the looks of them, he would hazard a guess being touched by one of these things would lead to unpleasant results. He screamed for help but a ferocious roar that echoed through the alley drowned out his voice, scaring the hell out of Riley.

What in the…? Did I just hear a tiger roar?

From out of the depths of who knew where, four huge tigers appeared ahead of him. They bared their fangs and roared. Now there were tigers? Had they escaped from a zoo somewhere? Was he losing his ever-loving mind? He inched away from the huge cats lined up across the alley, their eyes on him. Gingerly he crouched down and attempted to hide as best he could behind the trash can lid.

Wait, tigers had a really good sense of smell, didn’t they? Crap. He was a dead man. Not like they didn’t know he was there. Another roar froze him to the spot. Holy shit, their roars were terrifying! He peeked around the trash can lid, and his eyes widened as he stared, helpless as the largest of the four tigers broke into a run, heading right for him. Riley screamed, brandishing the trash can lid like a shield as the tiger leaped. To Riley’s disbelief the tiger soared over him instead of at him.

Dumbly Riley turned. The tiger jumped into a throng of screaming creatures, its fangs bared as it slashed with razor-sharp claws. Holy shit, they were fighting! Before another genius revelation crossed Riley’s mind, the other three tigers joined the battle. They fought viciously, tearing and clawing at the dripping, rotting corpses. Their claws left behind strange colored lights as they tore gashes into their enemies. Riley had never seen anything like it, not during any number of late-night National Geographic marathons or any of his favorite geeky TV shows. Man, he really needed to get out more.

Riley gingerly moved away from the battle, hoping to slip away unnoticed. Maybe he could make a break for it now that everyone was busy. There was a good chance the lemon cake he ate was somehow laced with LSD and he was high as a fucking kite, grinning like an idiot and sitting on the café counter stuffing baked goods into his mouth. One could only hope.

The alley darkened and Riley gasped. More creatures emerged from the shadows, scurrying toward the tigers. How the hell were four supposed to fend off hundreds, maybe more? For every one that was dispatched, ten more appeared. The tigers roared and leaped. They twisted their muscular bodies to lash out at their attackers with massive paws, their ears flattened back against their big furry heads. It was both mesmerizing and terrifying.

Riley breathed through his mouth to avoid smelling the creatures, and as he slowly retreated, one foul creature turned its empty eyeholes in his direction. How the hell did they know he was there?

“Shit.” Riley took off, glancing behind him as the monster shrieked, calling to the others.

A mob of the things abandoned the fight to chase after him, several blocking the end of the alley and bringing him to a halt. Something solid slammed into him from behind and he hit the ground hard, but it didn’t hurt as much as the burn that seared his flesh when one of the foul things grabbed his arm. Riley cried out at the pain, a tiger roar soon joining his shout. He rolled onto his back as a shadow moved over him. This was it. It was all over. Riley shut his eyes tight. He regretted not having been able to clear his browser history. Sorry, Mom. I wasn’t disturbed, I swear. Okay, maybe a little.

The burn disappeared from his arm and he felt the heat of a heavy mass over him. His eyes flew open and he was met with orange, white, and black fur. The larger of the tigers stood over him, fighting off the approaching creatures. Its green eyes vanished, replaced by a glowing white light. It snarled and opened its jaws, a blinding light burst out, forcing Riley to squint. The light flared, exploding through the alley before fading. Then silence.

The tiger stepped away and Riley sat up, stunned. The alley was empty. Every last foul-smelling creature was gone. The tiger turned its large head in his direction and Riley gave a start. Its eyes were once again green. It stared intensely at him, as if it could see into his very soul. It was weird and a little bit creepy. With a series of roars and mewls, the tiger began to contort itself, its fur drawing inward and its body changing. Now what? This wasn’t possible. Not outside of Hollywood, anyway. Several heartbeats later the tiger was gone and Riley found himself staring into the intense green eyes of a man.

The man’s muscles twitched and flexed as he slowly stood. His jaw was chiseled, his brows thick and as pitch black as his hair. There were several nicks on his tanned skin. Riley had no idea where the black boots, black leather pants, and tight black T-shirt came from, but they made him look even bigger, more menacing. Both arms were covered in tribal tattoos, from the patterned bands around his wrists and forearms to the more intricate designs disappearing under his shirtsleeves.

“Please don’t kill me.”

The man’s eyes widened. “You see me?”

Shit. “Um, no. Didn’t see a thing.” Riley got up and held a hand up in front of him. Two equally muscular men and Wonder Woman joined their friend. The others had changed too. This was crazy. Riley backed away slowly. “I’m, uh, I’m gonna go check myself into a hospital about my, uh, not seeing you guys. Excuse me.”

“Khalon, look!” The fair-haired man pointed to Riley’s arm. Riley followed the man’s gaze and cursed under his breath. There were four bands of tribal tattoos around his left forearm where the creature had grabbed him. Had it somehow marked him? If it had, why did the marks look like a tattoo? Wait, the patterns looked just like the ones on this Khalon dude’s arms.

“What is this?” Riley looked up and nearly jumped out of his skin. The one they called Khalon towered over Riley. He took hold of Riley’s wrist and held his arm up to inspect it.

“It can’t be.”

Just when Riley thought this night couldn’t get any weirder. Khalon shook his head before releasing Riley. His jaw muscles clenched as he grew pensive, narrowing his eyes.

“We’re taking him with us.”

“What?” Hell no. He hadn’t just survived whatever the hell that was back there to get kidnapped. Riley tried to make a break for it, but Khalon threw his arm around Riley’s waist and pulled him up against him. “What the fuck? Who the hell do you think—”

“Sleep, human.”

Khalon waved his hand over Riley’s face and everything went black.

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